Big men no match for big hearts

By Jeff Kirik

On a night when the Big Men of Nebraska were supposed to be the main attraction, it was the Little Big Men of NIU who stole the show.

Forward Donnell “D-Train” Thomas and the guard tandem of Donald Whiteside and Stacy Arrington combined for 49 points Tuesday as NIU dumped Nebraska 65-56 in front of 3,311 at Chick Evans Field House.

At 6-foot-4, Thomas was dwarfed by a Cornhusker frontcourt that featured 7-foot-2 Rich King, 6-9 Richard van Poelgeest and 6-7 Lewis Geter. However, what couldn’t be measured was the size of Thomas’ heart. For when the game entered the final stretch, it was the D-Train who hoisted the Huskies on his broad shoulders and pulled them to the win.

Despite his height disadvantage, Thomas owned the area around the basket. In the first half he did it with his scoring, tallying 14 of his 18 points. In the second half he did it with his rebounding, pouncing on 11 of his game-high 15 boards.

“I’ll take a 6-4 Donnell Thomas over anybody who’s 6-8,” said NIU coach Jim Molinari. “Because someone once said, ‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.’ And I’ll tell you what, no one fights harder than Donnell inside. He just got every rebound down the stretch.”

But Molinari did admit, “I was disappointed because one time he did miss one.”

Entering the game, the Huskies, now 3-2, knew they had to control the tempo of the contest and neutralize a powerful Nebraska inside game. They did both to perfection.

Running its halfcourt offense in textbook fashion, NIU jumped to first-half leads of 6-0 and 16-6 before taking a 32-30 advantage into intermission. Led by Whiteside, a 5-10 point guard, and a stingy, hustling defense, the Huskies once again set a methodical pace in the second half. The result was an NIU lead of 43-32 with 14:07 left to play.

“We knew that if we kept the game under control and controlled the tempo, that we would come out on top,” said Whiteside, who drilled 4-of-5 three-point shots on his way to 18 points.

However, Nebraska (3-3) had one last gasp left, and the Cornhuskers eventually took a 52-50 advantage—their only lead of the game—when Lewis Geter converted a layup with 4:25 to go.

Two minutes later, though, NIU guard Stacy Arrington tallied the most crucial of his 13 points when he hit a lean-in 12-foot jumper that narrowly beat the shot-clock and gave his team a 54-52 lead. From that point the Huskies were in command, scoring 11 of the last 15 points, including nine consecutive free throws.

“I thought the Huskies just weren’t going to be denied,” said Husker coach Danny Nee. “They just did the right things. They outworked Nebraska, outhustled Nebraska, outshot Nebraska and did the things necessary to win.”

The Huskies outrebounded Nebraska, too. Thomas, whom Nee called a “blue-collar worker”, gave his explanation for his team’s 40-32 win on the boards.

“I felt as if the lineup that we’re playing, we’re not tall but we’re very quick,” he said. “Most of the time big seven footers are going to be pretty slow so we have to use our quickness to get the rebounds—and we did that tonight.”